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Weekend Reader: Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle For The American Idea In An Age Of Discontent

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Weekend Reader: Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle For The American Idea In An Age Of Discontent


The following is excerpted from E.J. Dionne’s new book, Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle For The American Idea In An Age Of Discontent. You can purchase it here.


At its heart, the Tea Party consisted of nothing more (or less) than conservative Republicans who had opposed Barack Obama in 2008 and were angry that he was pursuing the policies he’d run on. Many were also upset over the failures of the Bush presidency and their sense that Bush had been a “big spender,” which was certainly true when it came to Iraq.

Astute marketing, not philosophical innovation, is what set the Tea Party apart. It was conservative Republicanism with a sharper tilt rightward. It enjoyed the additional advantages of its own television network in Fox News, a nationwide troupe of talk radio hosts, a considerable bankroll—its most famous angels being the wealthy Koch brothers—and the energies of Sarah Palin, whom every segment of the media could not get enough of in the years 2009 and 2010, before she began to fade.

A New York Times/CBS News survey in April 2010 was especially helpful in debunking the idea that the Tea Party was a bold new populist movement. The Times reported that Tea Party supporters accounted for about a fifth of the country and tended to be “Republican, white, male, married and older than 45.” It was hard to find a better description of the GOP base. They were also more affluent and better educated than Americans as a whole. If this was populism, it was the populism of the privileged, or at least the comfortable.

The Tea Party was in many ways a throwback movement—to the 1930s and also to the 1950s and early 1960s. Like the right wing in those earlier years, it saw most of the domestic policies the federal government had undertaken since the Progressive Era and the New Deal as unconstitutional. Like its forebears, the Tea Party typically perceived the most dangerous threats to freedom as coming not from abroad but from the designs of well-educated elitists out of touch with “American values.”

The language of these Obama-era anti-statists, like the language of the 1950s right, regularly invoked the Founders by way of describing the threats to liberty presented by socialists disguised as liberals. A group called Tea Party Patriots (many Tea Party groups donned the colors of patriotism) described itself as “a community committed to standing together, shoulder to shoulder, to protect our country and the Constitution upon which we were founded!” Tea Party Nation called itself “a user-driven group of like-minded people who desire our God-given individual freedoms written out by the Founding Fathers.”


  1. nobsartist February 23, 2013

    Funny, the ideals of these felons has re-appeared over and over yet it seems like nobody knows how to deal with them.

    Maybe its because BOTH parties are the same and ALL politicians think Americans are chumps.

    Our government has been lying to us for 60 years. The lie has gone on for so long that America has no way shy of massive revolt, to turn the lies around.

    Hence, new gun control laws.

    1. charleo1 February 23, 2013

      I know from previous posts, you believe both Parties are, “All the same,” I was going to
      let it slide. After all, that’s your opinion, and you are most definitely entitled to it. But,
      then you say, as if to tie a little bow atop your assertion, “Hence, the new gun control
      laws.” First,there are no new laws as of yet. And secondly, the people in this Country
      want something done that would prevent some of these mass killings. No one is
      suggesting that the government take everyone’s guns away. Or, that any law will
      prevent all these tragedies, it won’t. But, this isn’t some precursor instigated by the
      Federal Government to enslave the people. Or, whatever it is you believe they are
      planning to do. This is a case of the American People demanding their Government
      stand up to the gun lobby, and the bare knuckled politics of the NRA, and do something
      about the outrageous gun violence in this Country. Now, as far as a massive revolt.
      Americans are about as close to a massive revolt, as I am to becoming an astronaut.
      Are there inequities in the system that both Parties have contributed to? Absolutely.
      I see one Party that has strayed from the mainstream. And because it has, it is now
      facing some difficult political problems, largely of it’s own making. And, as a result
      have resorted to attempting to do some undemocratic things. But, I don’t see the other
      Party agreeing with them. I believe every American has a civic duty to stay informed.
      And also let the history, we all should have a working knowledge of, give us perspective
      on the challenges, that not only our Country faces. But, what we as Americans face as a
      people. For example, if you share my opinion that the economy has become out of balance.
      That the connected, monied elite has, over time, skewed our economy so heavily in their
      favor, it doesn’t work very well for the average person. Instead of believing that all
      politicians believe that Americans are chumps. Which we both know is not true. Some?
      Yes. But, if we look at our history, there have been other such times very similar to what
      we see today. Even the rhetoric is remarkably the same. And, not only did we
      survive those very similar times. But were able to correct the inadequacies in the system,
      and prosper. Not because we lost faith in the democracy we inherited, but because we
      did not.

  2. Dominick Vila February 23, 2013

    In the end, neither party will dominate the opinion of the American people, who are neither far right or far left. Most Americans are centrists, and only the party the moves to the middle is likely to survive the test of time.

    1. whodatbob February 23, 2013

      I agree! The strength of our two party is as one party gains momentum it moves to its extrem the other moves to the center. The weakness of our two party system is as one party moves to the center gaining momentum it keeps moving to its extrem. Hence the pengulim swings back and forth.

      1. plc97477 February 23, 2013

        it is not a weakness. I just keeps the political pendulum at or near the center. Or encourages it to go there

  3. WhutHeSaid February 23, 2013

    Not so fast there, E.J., most Americans don’t need to read any book to recognize who the Tea Party is. They managed to pull a fast one in 2010, sure, but it didn’t take long for America to recognize the old John Birch and KKK crowd — even if they were wearing silly hats.

    Similar to the surprise in finding a turd lying in the middle of one’s dinner table, Americans at first were hesitant to believe that this was the same old group of vile and despicable racists who they hoped had disappeared over the years while America grew towards the multiracial society that everyone knew was coming. But in a manner not unlike the revulsion once the recognition of the fetid stench makes the reality of a soiled dinner unmistakeable, so the disgust of the American public began to rise as the realization set in that this was, in fact, the same sordid crowd that they always preferred to believe had quietly gone away.

    Adorning themselves with new hats, a new name that was supposed to conjure up visions of patriotism (a red flag if ever there was one), and millions of dollars in funding from greedy plutocrats, this hateful gaggle of malcontents managed to infect a good chunk of our political system before we even realized that we were vulnerable to this age-old social disease. Those who weren’t quick enough to recognize the obvious lie about being ‘taxed enough already’ (taxes are the lowest in over 60 years) made the mistake of assuming that these people were really concerned about freedom, jobs, and taxation. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    Once these chronic haters found their way into office, any feigned concern for jobs, taxes, or freedom vanished into thin air. Without hesitation they set out to attack minorities, women, the poor, and anyone else who wasn’t old, wrinkled, and white. Not one constructive thing has ever been attempted by those who made it into power, but they quickly made it clear that they were perfectly willing to damage the entire nation in their quest to attack, obstruct, and harass America’s first black President.

    The Tea Party isn’t a sign of a divided political heart. It’s the same old dark side of human nature emerging from the sewers once more to attack the progress we’ve made over the years towards tolerance and racial harmony. It’s nothing new. It’s just something that we became too comfortable with in our own progress to recognize was still lurking, waiting for it’s chance to once again infect our society with it’s despicable agenda. We should have been more vigilant all along.

  4. latebloomingrandma February 23, 2013

    The idea that liberalism is full of pointy headed elitists determined to remake our country into a socialist state is very entrenched in conservatist ideology. Especially “Ivy League” credentials. What, then, is their excuse for the Ted Cruzes and Santorums who also hold such degrees?. I have a well educated conservative friend who cannot get off this mantra about the evils of liberal thought, and how universities are all in cahoots to ruin all students. I lashed back at him that conservatives have their own over educated ideologues, and they are all sitting in think tanks plotting the plutocracy. How did this country descend into “ideology” rather than staying with competing, “checks and balances” philosophy instead?
    I read EJ’s book last year. It was very good-measured and balanced- pulling examples and laws from throughout our history, and even a study of sociology.
    I am currently reading his book of 2008–“Souled Out-Reclaiming Faith & Politics After the Religious Right”. For anyone interested in the frustrating intertwining of religion and politics, from a left of center liberal viewpoint, this is very thoughtful book. I live amidst a hotbed of right wing religion. Rather than convincing me, EJ managed to put into words my views and reasoning that I was unable to do. I’m enjoying this book more than the latest one.
    It’s a declining country when we downplay education and bully or make fun of college degrees. An uneducated citizenry can be led around like sheep. OR—we end up with country full of Lana’s.

    1. MARK February 23, 2013

      God Forbid!

    2. plc97477 February 23, 2013

      that gives me a new and disturbing nightmare for tonight

      1. neeceoooo February 23, 2013

        That is something we can all do without

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